Advanced Micro Devices has loosened its commitment to the x86 architecture, announcing a new design strategy that could pave the way for using ARM technology in future AMD chips.
AMD said last week it will allow the integration of third-party intellectual property in future processors, as part of a new plan to design purpose-built chips for customers. If a customer needs another architecture besides x86, AMD will combine its own intellectual property with that of a third party, AMD CTO Mark Papermaster said in an interview.
"The new AMD is about nailing customer requirements," he said. "We will work with all of the ISA [instruction set architecture] providers."
Papermaster didn't say directly that AMD will use ARM technology, but the company is open to using other instruction-set architectures, examples of which include ARM, MIPS and PowerPC.
The new strategy comes amid sweeping changes in the computing landscape. Tablet and smartphone use has expanded dramatically, but x86 chips from AMD and Intel have yet to make their mark in those devices. Microsoft's Windows 8 OS for PCs and tablets, due later this year, will run on both x86 and ARM.
The flexibility to include outside IP will allow AMD to adapt quickly to the fast-changing landscape, Papermaster said. Device makers want specialized chips for particular tasks, and AMD has a trove of IP in areas like graphics and display with which to build products. For example, AMD's graphics processor can be mixed with third-party IP for multimedia devices.
"The dynamics of the chips are changing," Papermaster said.
AMD's attempts in the tablet market have fallen flat so far, fueling speculation that it will sign a license to use ARM's chip designs. AMD and ARM have a common relationship around OpenCL, a standardized set of programming tools for handling parallel task execution. OpenCL potentially could enable programs to interoperate across AMD and ARM graphics and processor cores.
While alternative architectures are now an option, AMD's business revolves around x86, and the company remains committed to that architecture, Papermaster said.
"That's a good business for us today, and in 2014 and beyond," he said.
AMD ships around 20 million x86 processors a quarter and has a long history with that architecture, and it would be hard for the company to move quickly to a new design, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst of Mercury Research.
AMD's real prize is its graphics technology, which is hard for rivals to reproduce, McCarron said. AMD wants to extend that technology to a wider range of devices, including potentially TVs.
The size of any deal would affect AMD's decision whether to employ ARM technology, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. If a customer as big as Apple were to ask AMD to include ARM in its chips, the company would surely consider the option.
"What are they going to do with ARM? If anything, it remains to be seen," Brookwood said. "For smaller customers, one-off, I don't see them going in that direction."
AMD's openness to other architectures is a sign it wants to shift the competitive landscape with Intel, analysts said. The two companies have competed head-on for many years in the x86 business, and Intel still dominates the PC and server markets.
"One thing is that they don't want to focus on the duopoly nature of x86," Brookwood said. "They are going to do their own thing."